French Braids

An excerpt.

Christmas, 2006 / No. 17
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

“You have to hold still,” snaps Leonora, yanking a strand of Emily’s dark brown hair for emphasis.

“I am! Just quit pulling so hard!”

“Do you want me to finish the other one or not? ” Leonora leans over Emily, braiding her hair before the meeting.

“Yes,” Emily pouts, her eyebrows furrowed and face scrunched up, insistent. “Just get it done. I’ll stop squirming.”

Emily doesn’t know anyone else who knows how to do French braids, not even their mother. All the most stylish and best-looking kids at school and at the district assemblies have French braids, and Emily has wanted them all year. She just hadn’t known it would take this long, or be this painful.

“Good, because I have to start over. The first one’s no good.”

Emily howls at this and stands up, shakes her arms and legs in a dramatic show of exasperation, then sits back down in front of Leonora.

“This is taking forever. I want to read while you do my hair.”

“No. You move your head too much when you read.”

Emily starts to whine some more, and Leonora cuts her off, barking, “You’re the one who wanted French braids so bad. Now just shut up and hold still. If you’re good, I’ll tell you a story.”

“O.K.” Emily closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, folds her hands on her lap, and exhales loudly. “Go. I’m ready.”

Emily loves stories, especially mysteries like the Trixie Belden books, or even Nancy Drew, though Trixie is better. At the Kingdom Hall meetings, she likes the sisters’ talks because they are like little plays, conversations that tell a story. Some of the ladies are better at it than others, of course, and sometimes a sister is so nervous to be up onstage before the entire congregation, she forgets what she is supposed to say, turns red and sweaty, mumbles incoherently, and just reads awkwardly from the papers in front of her. It’s embarrassing, and when Emily is old enough to give a talk, she is going to be the best at it. Everything will be memorized and emphasized properly, and very original, not just pretending to be out in door-to-door service like most of them do.

Hers will be different, better. Mr. Laurence says that Emily is “tremendously industrious,” and Emily agrees with that. She is “diligent,” another word she learned during her library shift.

Leonora parts Emily’s hair with a sharp comb, and divides it into sections using the pointed end.

“Ow! You don’t have to stab me in the skull, you know!”

“Shut up,” Leonora says, as she tugs another chunk of Emily’s hair into the braid. “I think I’ve got it now.” Emily cringes but stays quiet, growing accustomed to the yanks and pokes and the throbbing of her scalp.

“What about my story? ”

“I’m thinking of one.” Leonora stops working on Emily’s hair and paces around the room, flexing her fingers and cracking her knuckles.

“You owe me for this. It’s painful work, you know.”

“It hurts me, too. But it’ll look really good, right? ” Emily stretches halfway out of the chair, trying to see her hair in Leonora’s full-length mirror on the back of her door.

“Sure. Just hold still now and I’ll tell you a story. But you can’t tell anyone else, O.K.? ”


“I mean it. No one, including Mom and Dad.”

“I promise.”

“You better. Or I’ll never do your hair again.”

“I promise!”

“Promise and swear to God? For real? ”


“And stay out of my chair.”

“I will, I will!”

“O.K.,” began Leonora. “This is a story about some kids who go camping in the woods.”

“What kids? Who? ”

“It doesn’t matter! Just some kids—fictional kids, made up—no one you know.”

“O.K. Can I give them names? ”

“No! You can shut up so I can tell the story and finish your hair.”

“O.K. Sorry, Leonora.” Emily bites the insides of her lips to keep from talking.

“So these four kids, teenagers, set out with their backpacks and tents and sleeping bags to go camping. None of their parents know where they are. They all said they were sleeping over at each others’ houses, and then took off to the woods. They hike and hike until it gets dark, and then they realize that no one remembered to bring a flashlight. Of course, they get separated and lost, and only Bill and Marla are left, so they set up their tent—”

“They’re sleeping in the same tent? ” asks Emily. “Are they married? ”

“No, of course not. It doesn’t matter.”

“Are they worldly? ”

“I don’t know! Maybe. It’s just a story.”

“O.K.” Emily tries not to wonder if they’re Jehovah’s Witness kids, like them, or worldlings; if they’re going to get in trouble, or if they do this all the time.

“So they get into the tent, and pretty soon it gets really cold, and Bill pulls a Thermos out of his pack and tells Marla to drink some, that it’ll make her warm.”

“Like a magic potion? ”

“Sure, like a magic potion,” Leonora laughs. So it warms her up and she’s happy, but Bill says he’s still cold, and Marla should warm him up.”

“Doesn’t the potion work on him? ”

“No. It doesn’t work on him. If you interrupt me one more time, I won’t tell you the rest of the story.” Leonora’s fingers are still pulling and weaving Emily’s hair.

“I guess the stuff she drinks only works on girls. Anyway, Marla and Bill have to huddle together under the blanket to keep from getting hypothermia, which their friends now have, and are dead, but Marla and Bill don’t know that yet. So they’re rubbing each others’ arms and legs and stuff to stay warm, and Marla is still feeling really good and hot from the drink, and pretty soon, Bill says if she doesn’t want him to get hypothermia, she has to keep him warm all over, not just his hands. She has to press all of her body heat onto him, from head to toe…”

Leonora pauses and sighs, and Emily concentrates on resisting the urge to ask more questions. This is not the kind of story she likes. She prefers mysteries, or something with knights and dragons, and although the magic potion is appealing, the story, so far, is disappointing. She has decided that the main characters must be worldly, because the idea of Bill and Marla warming each other up in a tent definitely sounds immoral. Emily hopes their father is not listening at the door.

“Then Bill tells Marla that in order to save him from dying of hypothermia, she has to warm him up under his clothes, including his underwear, too—”

“Gross!” shrieks Emily. “Does she do it anyway? ”

“She has to. He’s the only one left who knows how to get out of the woods and back home, so she can’t let him die.” Leonora puts the final elastic around the bottom of Emily’s braid and pronounces both her hair and the story finished.

“Let me see the back!”

Leonora angles another mirror in front of Emily so that she can see the back in the mirror on the door. Emily reaches up toward her head, amazed at the shininess and perfection of her very first set of French braids.

“Don’t touch it! You’ll wreck it!” Leonora says. “Hold on.” She gets a bottle of hairspray from her dresser and sprays it all over Emily’s head.

“Yuck!” Emily coughs, “Stop!” The aerosol is viscous and sticky, and smells like bug spray. She spits some into a tissue.

“O.K., you’re done. Go away.”

Emily stands in front of the mirror, turning from side to side, admiring her hair. Then she looks at Leonora.

“That wasn’t a very good story, you know.”


“I think it was immoral.”

“I don’t care what you think. You don’t even know what ‘immoral’ means!”

“Yes I do.”

“What then? ”

Emily doesn’t answer. She knows it’s wrong, sins of the flesh, no intercourse before marriage. She’s heard that at the meetings before, but she can’t explain exactly what it means. She decides she will look up “intercourse” in the big dictionary during her next library shift.

“See? You don’t know!”

“Marla shouldn’t have touched him. She could have found her way home in the morning.”

“Well, she did it anyway, and she liked it.” Leonora doesn’t look at Emily. She is studiously applying blue eyeliner beneath her green eyes.

“You’re going to get in trouble.”

“Oh yeah? What for? ”

“Saying stuff like that.”

“No I’m not. Because you promised to Jehovah that you wouldn’t tell. And you aren’t going to break a promise to God, are you? And risk being destroyed at Armageddon? I don’t think so. Now go away.”

Confused, Emily goes to her bedroom. Leonora has been baptized for a couple of years and, until now, has never talked about immoral stuff. It could be a trick, something to get Emily in trouble. She decides not to tell, in case that’s exactly what Leonora wants, but she’s still angry with her, and frustrated by the story.

She gets dressed and is ready a few minutes early for the meeting. After admiring her hair a while longer, Emily decides she must get back at Leonora for the story. She knows what will bother her more than anything—she’ll take over her chair.

Ever since Emily was a toddler, Leonora had her own chair, a big brown vinyl recliner in the living room, which she’d claimed as her own. At first, their parents thought it was inappropriate that a child could have her own chair, the way fathers or grandfathers do, but Leonora always got her way if she howled loud enough. She would sit in that recliner, legs outstretched, reading her Bible-study books for hours. Their mother figured that if claiming the chair would get Leonora to read Watchtower publications regularly, then so be it. She would also do her homework there, watch television, and, eventually, gossip on the phone. Only recently had the teenage Leonora spent more time locked in her bedroom than sprawled in her chair. A few years back, Emily had learned the hard way never to sit there when Leonora was home, never to intrude on her territory.

Emily’s brown hair was down to her waist at the time. She was in kindergarten then, excited by the new world of school, this place with so many others her age, full of unfamiliar games and songs and books. Of course there were some things she was not allowed to do, like listen to the Bible reading or sing pagan songs. But Miss Coulter was nice, and let her take a colouring book and crayons into the coatroom with her while the rest of the class did worldly activities. Though it smelled of damp wool in the winter, she didn’t mind being there; it was what Jehovah wanted, and was usually only once a day. It wasn’t until Grade 1 that other kids started giving her a hard time about missing the national anthem and Christmas carols. But since Emily had only sombre Kingdom Hall meetings to compare school to, kindergarten was an astonishing thrill. She hadn’t imagined school would be like that; surely she and her classmates alone were somehow fortunate enough to receive such treatment.

With this giddy feeling of privilege consuming her, Emily boldly decided to commandeer the recliner. It was October, and she’d just returned from an afternoon at school. She was armed with nothing but a colouring book and a box of crayons.

“Get out of my chair,” Leonora had commanded, her hands clamping her hips. Emily was colouring a train engine red, and Leonora pulled the colouring book from her hands. The crayon streaked across the page when she pulled, and made Emily go outside of the lines. Emily never went outside the lines.

“You wrecked it!” she said, but didn’t cry. Leonora held the colouring book up in the air, open to her ruined train engine, about to tear the page in half.

“Get out of my chair or I’ll wreck it for real.” At twelve, her sister was seven years older than Emily, and much bigger. Emily loved her Transportation colouring book, and had just learned that “transportation” meant all the different ways to get away from home. There were cars, of course, and buses, bicycles, airplanes, helicopters, and trains—which were her favourite because they were giant machine snakes and you could ride inside of them.

Emily did not get out of the chair until Leonora handed her back the pieces of the shredded colouring book. Eventually, tearing up novels and magazines became Leonora’s offensive strategy of choice against Emily.

Tonight, Emily sits alone in Leonora’s chair for a full ten minutes before anyone notices. Her mom, sipping from her usual lidded coffee cup, shakes her head.

“You’re asking for it,” she says. “Leonora’s not going to be happy, and I don’t have time to protect you. I have to finish getting ready for the Kingdom Hall.”

Emily doesn’t care. There’s nothing Leonora can do. This time, she is much older and smarter, and she does not have anything with her that Leonora can ruin. She sits with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her ankles crossed on the footrest.

“What do you think you’re doing? ” Leonora has flounced down the stairs and into the living room. Her blue painted nails are tapping on the armrest. Emily says nothing, just hums to herself and looks straight ahead, like no one is there.

“Get out of my chair.”

“No,” Emily says this time. “It’s my chair, too, you know.”

“No it’s not, it’s mine. Now get up.” She is getting louder, leaning into Emily’s face. Emily can feel the wet air from her mouth.

“Now!” Leonora’s face reddens and her eyes narrow.

“Gross.” Emily turns her head away and says, “Say it, don’t spray it.”

Leonora clears her throat.

“This is your last chance,” she says, and counts to three.

As Emily sits rigid and staring straight ahead, a warm gob of slime hits her cheek and slides toward her chin. She wipes it on her sleeve and looks at Leonora.

“Pig.” She doesn’t get up from the chair.

Leonora stomps out of the living room, and the bathroom door slams shut. Emily squirms and grins in the chair, trying not to laugh out loud. She folds her arms behind her head and closes her eyes. While Leonora sulks in the bathroom, Emily pretends she is at the beach, lying on a towel under the warm sun, the waves quiet behind her.

As she stretches languidly in the chair, trying to take up as much space as possible, there is a sudden tug, hard, on the side of her head. Leonora is pulling her right braid.

“This is your last chance, for real this time,” Leonora says. “Get out of my chair!”

Emily doesn’t budge. There is a flash of silver near the corner of her eye, and something cold against her ear. Then the swish and clang of steel jaws, the unmistakable opening and closing of the scissors.

“Ha,” Emily laughs, “I’m not scared of you.”

She knows Leonora wouldn’t cut her up, not with Mom and Dad home, and about to come downstairs to leave for the meeting at any moment.

She pushes her chin out further and again says, “It’s my chair, too.”

“You asked for it.” Leonora yanks her hair again. Emily hears one quick snip, and she is left with just one braid.